10 Best Spy Novels of All Time

Spy novels are excellent books to take along on a plane flight or to the doctor’s office. Their thrilling plotlines, interesting characters, and intense action scenes are perfect for staving off boredom.  The plots twist and turn through international intrigue—often with some great dashes of humor.

Spy walks away! Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull at Flickr.

What spy novels should you start with? The genre is massive, and finding the best ones is hard.

These classic spy novels have made their mark. Many of them have been made into movies. The ideas from them have found their way into television shows and video games. Enjoy these thrilling tales of the shadowy world of spies! Here’s a list of the best spy novels for your enjoyment.

1) The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

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This book is the first of the Jack Ryan series and is probably the most famous. Many people know it from the movie based on the book that stars Sean Connery as a Russian officer. The Hunt for Red October is a masterfully written spy thriller.  It tells the story of the search for a Russian submarine during the height of the Cold War.  One of the amazing things about the novel is that Clancy did his research about submarines. His descriptions feel amazingly realistic. Pick this up to read what some consider the definitive Cold War spy novel.

2) The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

Better known for being the basis of a hit movie series, the Bourne Identity is the book that started it all. However, you should still read the book, because it takes turns you didn’t see in the movie and goes into much more depth with the characters. A man is pulled from the Mediterranean Sea with no memory of his name or past. The world’s most dangerous assassin pursues him as he maneuvers through a world of danger and conspiracies that he doesn’t remember. For a different and more intense take on the Bourne series introduced by the movies, start off with The Bourne Identity.

3) Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy

Another spy novel classic by Tom Clancy, this novel chronicles a fictional Third World War in the mid-1980s. It follows all aspects of the conflict, from its beginning to its fiery battles to it’s behind the scenes intrigue. It is very jargon heavy and is one of the most technically minded thriller novels out there. If you want a more tactical kind of spy novel, read Red Storm Rising.

4) Smiley’s People by John le Carré

This spy thriller begins when an old spy is found assassinated in Moscow. His old friend George Smiley arrives to identify the body and begins unearthing deadly secrets. This book is more about the mystery than many other spy novels. Smiley’s People is an intensely engrossing novel that will sweep you along in its extravagant and twisting plot.

5) The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

This spy novel describes the attempt of an assassin named ‘The Jackal’ to kill the French President Charles De Gaulle while on the payroll of a French dissident paramilitary organization. Detailed and complex, the novel explains not only the operations of The Jackal but also tells of the race to catch him before he can finish his mission. The events of the novel contain some relation to historical fact, as it is based on an attempt to assassinate De Gaulle and accurately describes the events of the assassination attempt itself. Buy now.

6) Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

In Eye of the Needle, readers join a frantic attempt to catch a German spy during WWII before he informs the Germans about the decoy operation that is going to be staged as the Allies land on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy. MI6 sends a pair of spy catchers to capture Faber and stop him from informing the Nazis. They chase is an intense period piece, weaving together a number of elements to an elegant and engaging plot. There is a substantial bit of human drama in this novel, which makes sense because Ken Follett is better known as a writer of historical novels. This is an interesting book that seems like it could be a true story that turned the course of WWII.

7) The Charm School by Nelson DeMille

This spy novel, set during the height of the Cold War, describes the CIA’s hurried attempt to stop a KGB operation to infiltrate the United States with perfectly trained spies. This is a fast-paced novel with several memorable characters. You’ll love to love some of them and love to hate others. If you pick up The Charm School, you’ll find it very hard to put down.

8) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré

The most famous George Smiley novel, also made into a movie, this novel follows George Smiley as he seeks to find a Soviet mole that has penetrated the highest levels of British intelligence. Many people believe that this (not The Hunt for Red October) to be the most definitive Cold War era spy novel. The tight interweaving of spycraft and international intrigue makes this book distinctive. It is a bit slower than many people expect from a spy thriller, but the payoff and intensity of the conspiracy are well worth the slow and steady pace. Buy now!

9) The Kill Artist by Daniel Silva

Gabriel Allon thought he had put the life of an intelligence agent behind him and can now live a quiet life as an art restorer. However, he is called back into the spy’s world danger and mystery. This book is meticulously researched and highly entertaining.  Make sure you keep your phone on hand, however, as you’ll probably be looking up the occasional term from time to time. Read this book to start the acclaimed Gabriel Allon series. You’ll find them hard to put down.

10) The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

Another George Smiley novel, this time we join our hero shortly after Berlin Wall is raised. He and a cast of other characters move in the world of Cold War espionage and revenge. Nothing about this book has the flash and glamour of James Bond. It is a much grittier spy novel. It is well worth a read. You can buy this book here.

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